Alexandru Madgearu

title.none: Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (Alexandru Madgearu )

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.030 04.01.30

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alexandru Madgearu , Institute for Defence Studies and Military History,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. Series: The Making of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Pp. x, 625. ISBN: $30.00 0-631-22138-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.30

Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. Series: The Making of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Pp. x, 625. ISBN: $30.00 0-631-22138-7.

Reviewed by:

Alexandru Madgearu
Institute for Defence Studies and Military History

The first edition of this work was published in 1995 in the international series "The Making of Europe," which has developed general themes of social and cultural history like the cities or the birth of modern science. Well-known as a brilliant historian of late ancient religion and society, Peter Brown presents here a remarkable demonstration of the role played by the Church as institution and by the conversion to Christianity in the rise of European civilization and in the genesis of the ethnic units that are the ancestors of the modern nations.

This book is not a mere history of the Church in the West. The area encompassed is larger than what we usually call "Western Europe," because the author pays great attention to Byzantium and even to the Islamic area. The rise of western Christendom is constantly seen in relation and comparison with the other half of the world known by the Greeks and Romans: the East and sometimes the Far East.

In the introduction, Brown remarks that "other variants of the Christian faith, in other regions, faced problems which were often more similar than we might think to those which faced their western coreligionists" (3). On the other hand, the book examines the evolution of the Western Church (or, better, of the western churches) within the social, political, and economic framework of each region, in order to explain how the establishment and the development of this religious institution has influenced the secular world. The main idea of the work is that Christianity was the founding element of the European ethnic identities and also of the European identity as a whole.

The second edition was largely revised and it makes use of the most recent results of historical and archaeological research. Peter Brown's views on barbarians and ethnicity take into account the new approaches of Walter Pohl and Patrick Geary, emphasizing that the ethnic identities of the early medieval peoples were built and not born and that the Christian writers had a key role in this process. Brown argues that the traditional image of the barbarians is wrong. The barbarians were open-minded to the influence of Roman civilization and this explains the early triumph of Christianization. Another traditional theory disputed in the introduction is that expressed by Henri Pirenne. Brown considers that the dissolution of the Mediterranean economic system was not the result of the Arabian expansion, but a long process dated between the fifth and the sixth centuries. The Late Ancient world was a world without a true center. According to Brown, the diversity of several regional centers was in the same time the main feature of Christianity (9-15). The rest of the book illustrates in various ways this basic idea. The consequence was that western Christendom was a "combination of local autonomy with loyalty to the idea of a wider Christendom" (15).

The background of the spreading of Christianity in the barbarian world is presented in the first chapter (37-52). The Germanic tribes belonged to a kind of periphery of the Roman civilization, less peopled but not entirely different. The limes was in fact a contact area which allowed economic and cultural exchanges. The invasions transformed the former frontier into a real buffer zone, called by Brown a "middle ground," where the Roman and barbarian societies interfered in a new manner after 400. The conversion to Christianity was the final stage of the convergence between the societies once divided by the limes. This concept of the "middle ground" is crucial for Brown's interpretations, because it expresses how the acculturation process of Christianization was achieved outside Roman territory.

The innovative features of the new religion are discussed in the second chapter (54-71). Brown points out that Christianity differed from the classic religious cults by the absorption of the morality and philosophy. Another feature of the early Church emphasized by Brown is its economic dimension. The almsgiving ensured prosperity of the ecclesiastic institution in a time when the decline of the ancient elites deprived of donations the heathen sanctuaries. The Church has created a system of mobilization of wealth, which included all the social categories, because the Christian communities were themselves constituted by members of all these categories.

The triumph of Christianity in the Late Roman towns is presented in the third chapter (72-92). As Brown said, this was in fact a conquest. The pagan beliefs survived and the ancient gods became the daimones of the new faith. In the countryside, the rise of monachism started the conversion process in a different way, firstly in the eastern provinces. The Christianization of the towns led to an increasing influence of the bishops, who "by conquering the cities from the bottom up, were in a position to determine the policies of the emperor" (78). The bishops ruled in a world where a new upper class was eager to be Christian, and at the same time attached to the Roman culture. This world broke down in the West in the fifth century. The next chapter examines the fate of the Church in this "world without Empire," where the barbarians acquired the status of insiders (93-122).

Brown remarks the significance of the cooperation established between the local aristocracy and the newcomers, who assumed step by step the Roman models, including the Christian faith. Very interesting is the idea of "downsizing," which replaces the usual interpretation of the decline caused by invasions. The crisis of the West was in fact a power vacuum, which required as a necessity the cooperation of the local aristocrats with the barbarian warlords. The same need for order explains the increasing power of the bishops, who became the true leaders of the cities, even in military affairs. The settlement of the barbarians has created local power centers around which new ethnicities were born, in a process that reversed the Roman unification. The barbarian armies became distinct entities (gentes), composed from people of different origins (even Romans). What mattered was the membership in the army.

At the same time, the Church of the Eastern Empire was troubled by the Christological controversy, which is briefly presented by Brown at the end of the fourth chapter.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to Noricum, Britain, Ireland, and Francia (123-141). In northern Europe, a new world was born, based on Christianity, but not Roman. The tradition followed by these peripheral churches was that of the Old Testament, not of the Roman antiquity. Meanwhile, in the frontier areas of the former Roman Empire the Christians were confronted with new invasions. The situation of Noricum is better known because it is illustrated by Vita Sancti Severini. Brown shows that the upper class had emigrated in Italy, but the common people of Noricum remained in their country. "Their Christianity, largely deprived of classical leadership, became a folk religion" (125). We can add that this evolution was not unique. In post-Roman Dacia, the Romanized inhabitants who remained after the retreat of the Roman administration (275 AD) preserved the name Romani as an ethnic label, like the people from Noricum and Rhaetia. The contacts with the Empire determined the spreading of the Christianity among them in the fourth-sixth centuries, but without a missionary action and without a local hierarchy. Christianity survived in Dacia only as a "folk religion," while the name Romanus inherited by the modern Romanians as an ethnonyme has also acquired the significance of "Christian." Dacia does not belong to the space dealt in this book, but its case is exemplary for the fate of the Christian Roman population in the area called by Brown a "middle ground," in contact and fight with the successive waves of barbarian invasions.

Post-Roman Dacia displays some common features with Britain (the collapse remembered by Brown was near the same). For Britain, the author emphasizes the importance of the contacts established around the "Celtic Mediterranean," where Christian people moved from Britain to Ireland, bringing the new religion into a society which has converted small tribe by small tribe.

At the same time, the conversion made a significant progress in the countryside of the former Roman provinces. The sixth chapter (145-165), which opens the part dedicated to the sixth century, deals with the fight against the pagan survivals led by bishops like Caesarius of Arles. The rural conversion is usually seen as the result of the action of the bishops, but Brown points out that the development of the rural estates gave to their owners the opportunity to be important agents of Christianization among the peasants, by building churches and monasteries. "The history of the rural church is often the last act of the long history of the Roman villa" (146). A discovery from Scythia Minor (Dobrudja, Romania) shows that the evolution started earlier than Brown thinks. In the Roman villa located at Telia (Tulcea County), an abandoned workshop was transformed in the fourth century into a basilica. At the existing room, which had the form of an apse, it was attached to a building that copies the plan of the early Christian basilicas of Syrian type. The site produced several Christian objects [[1]].

The conversion of the countryside left alive the ancient beliefs of the "populations who had always thought of themselves as being embedded in the natural world and who had always expected to be able to impinge upon that world, so as to elicit its generosity and to ward off its perils by means of rites which reached back, in most parts of Europe, to prehistoric times" (147). The mission of bishops like Caesarius of Arles was to fight against these agrarian rites that defined what he called rusticitas. However, the sacralization of the space (of certain places) was revived in the Christian manner of the cult of the local saints, as can be seen, for instance, from the descriptions recorded by Gregory of Tours.

In the seventh chapter, Brown turns back to Byzantium, discussing the position acquired by the bishops in the sixth century society (166-189). They became the true rulers of the cities, because they assumed administrative and even military attributions. The city was spiritually defended by the bishops and by the Church as institution.

The same chapter presents the place of the ascets of the desert as opposed to the people of the world, laymen or priests-- a division which was absent in the West. But countryside was not only the location of these ascets. It also was the environment that was less affected by the Justinianic plague of 543. As a consequence, after the middle of the sixth century, many bishoprics moved in rural areas (in the monasteries), while the towns began to decline (181-186). This shift to countryside is real, but some remarks should be added. Brown does not discuss the credibility of the sources about the disastrous impact of the plague, although some doubts were expressed in the last years [[2]]. As for the large villages where Brown "relocates" the bishops (186), the reader would find interesting remarks in the study of G. Dagron [[3]], who defined these settlements as a distinct category between towns and villages, with specific economic features, with a special inner organization and sometimes with a particular propensity toward heresy.

The following chapter ends the part about the sixth century, with an overview of the work of Pope Gregory the Great (190-215). For Brown, its main result was the development of a way of transmission of the Christian message from bishops to people, through his Regula Pastoralis. On the other hand, the same period saw the development of the media necessary for this transmission: the activity of Cassiodorus at Vivarium "made the culture of a very ancient world available to a less privileged generation, which could no longer count on having teachers available, in their locality, to explain difficult texts to them by word of mouth" (197). The written message of the books and the oral message of the sermons (praedicatio) were the two ways by which Christianity expanded. Cassiodorus and Gregory the Great were thus outstanding figures in this process.

In the ninth chapter (219-231), which opens the part dedicated to the period 600-750, Brown discusses the western monachism, largely different from the eastern one. He emphasizes that here the monks were not a separate and sacred caste like in the Orient and that the western holiness was collective, not individual. The expression "powerhouse of prayer," used by Brown, illustrates very well this feature of the western monasteries, where the observation of the St. Benedict rules ensured the collective spiritual power.

The new Latin culture evolved in this monastic milieu is presented in the next chapter (232-247). The main difference between it and the classic culture was the emphasis put on morality and the result was the making of the new ideal of man: the sapiens: "a man who had mastered Latin from books, who had made his own the wisdom of the Bible and of a Christian inheritance made available in a few, stubbornly valued texts, and who knew how to deploy this hard-won knowledge in a Latin rhetoric calculated to communicate the awe and the urgency of such wisdom" (241). The Latin language kept indeed its place in communication, but in more simple forms that finally evolved into the Romance languages. Brown remarks that Latin became a lingua franca even in the areas that were not Romanized, like Ireland. In the territory of the former Roman provinces, the victory of Latin in countryside over the authochtonous languages is seen as a result of the pressure exerted by landowners and priests, beginning with the fourth century (232). We can thus consider that Christianization had a role in the achievement of Romanization, a conclusion that can be also drawn from the study of post-Roman Dacia.

The activity of one of these sapientes, Columbanus, is discussed in the eleventh chapter, together with some important considerations about the innovations occurring in the Christian faith and rite in the seventh century (248-266). Ireland and northern France became then the area of a new form of Christianity, based on the powerful monasteries, patronized by kings and landowners. Brown remarks that the monasteries replaced the economic function of the Roman villae, because "they were economic centers which gathered an entire countryside around them" (254). The major innovation of the period, a new vision about death, came into being because the network of monasteries supported the spreading of the "penitential mentality" introduced by the Rule of Columbanus. Before the seventh century, the Church was not so involved in the funeral rites, but after this century Death was Christianized because the clergy defined the funeral rituals. The fate of the soul after death was no more determined by the care of the family. "The soul was now thought of as being placed in a position of peril in the other world. (...) The ancient rituals performed by the family, such as bringing food and drink to 'nourish' the soul, could not allay so sharp a peril. Only the Mass could do that" (264). This change led finally to the notion of Purgatory which became a major difference between Western and Eastern Christianity. In this way, the seventh century was a turning point for the religious life. Not only for the reason presented above, but also because in the same century a new religion appeared in the East.

We have already observed that Brown wrote about western Christianity without ignoring the East. He has integrated the history of the Byzantine Church in his approach, for a better understanding of the differences that came into being during the early Middle Ages. In the following two chapters, he extends this comparative perspective up to Arabia, Armenia, Persia, and China. This "global" vision is one of the merits of the book. In the chapter 12, entitled "Christianity in Asia and the Rise of Islam" (267-294), Brown begins the discussion about the most eastern churches with some considerations of Byzantine-Persian relations. The domination of these empires has divided a space which was unitary, the fertile crescent of the Near East. This space was further unified by the Arab conquest (as Brown will observe in the following chapter). However, before Islam, Persia was a good environment for the spreading of the Christianity. This empire manifested a certain tolerance for the religion of its foreign subjects. The trading routes were at the same time ways of conversion, especially for the Nestorian heresy, up to China. But Persia fell in the fight with Byzantium, just in the years when the Muslim religion was born in Arabia. The Persian Christian communities remained outside of Christian Byzantium. The rise of Islam is presented by Brown in the context of the relations established by the Arab leaders with the Byzantine and Persian empires. They were influenced by the early Byzantine civilization and sometimes they became Christians. This was the background of the preaching of Muhammad, which led in a very short time to the rise of a new religion and of a new empire.

The next chapter presents the fate of the Christians under Islamic rule (295-320). The new religion remained for a while a religion of a segregated minority of warriors which observed a certain toleration toward the Christians and Jews. The conversion to Islam of the former Christian communities was not forceful and it was largely determined by economic reasons. "Their position within the Islamic state was far better than the status of non-Christians, Jews and pagans, in the Christian empire" (305). In these conditions, many Christians kept their faith alive, even when they were of Arab origin or Arabian-speakers. Brown considers that the flourishing Caliphate became the milieu of a kind of new hellenism of Syriac language, based in monasteries and schools. From this milieu came one of the most important Eastern theologians, St. John Damascene (665-749), who was of Arab extraction. Moreover, the great Arab conquest favored the spreading of Christianity toward the Far East. Things changed after the middle of the eighth century, when the expansion of the Arabian language contributed to the Islamization of the Christians who remained under Muslim power.

In the fourteenth chapter, Brown turns again to the western world, discussing Ireland in the seventh-eighth centuries (321-339). Irish society was based on the relations created by "an intricate web of mutual obligations created by gifts" (326). As a consequence, Christianity was integrated in this system. The activity of the Church was perceived as a gift given in return for another gift-- the wealth offered by the laymen. For this reason, the monasteries became the centers of networks of "personal dependence, perpetually created by the gift of hospitality and labor" (333). In this way, each small community (tuath) "was proud to have its own hierarchy" (330), while the monasteries played the role elsewhere held by the cities. In this particular form of Christendom, strongly embedded in the social relations, the literature developed as a mean of remembering the past, in order to express the honor of the leaders. The literacy came together with the conversion to Christianity, but the literature was expressed in Irish, because it was intended for the noble class (traditions, poetry, legal texts). On the other hand, the Old Testament was taken as a model for the Irish society, for instance in the law code Senchas MB7n. The final remark of this chapter is that "The 'sewing together' of church and people in Ireland, in the sixth and seventh centuries, had resulted, by the beginning of the eighth century, in a 'sewing together' of pagan past and Christian present that was unique in the history of Europe" (339).

In the fifteenth chapter, Brown examines the Christianization of Saxon Britain (340-354). Brown acknowledges that Christianity has not disappeared in the lands conquered by the Saxons. He considers that the local peasants preserved "even without an organized clergy" a "folk religion" and he also observes that "such "folk Christianity," practiced by a conquered people, was largely invisible to outsiders" (341). He is right, because an identical situation emerged in the post-Roman society of Dacia after the withdrawal of the imperial administration. The Daco-Roman Christianity was in the same way "invisible," because it was deprived of any superior organization and it was not supported by the barbarian masters who dominated the area for many centuries. In Britain, Christianity revived in new forms because it was adopted by the Saxon kings as a prestige exotic good of Roman origin.

The adoption of the new religion by the Saxon kings legitimated their conquest. In these conditions, the mission of Augustine restored with great success the Church life in Britain, also providing the kingdom with a written law code. The next step in the evolution of the Christian culture in Britain was the creation of the English ethnic identity. This was the work of Bede, for whom gens Anglorum was "a new people, united, if in nothing else, by their common adherence to Catholic Christianity," like a new chosen people. So, "Christianity came to create notions of "national" unity that would (for good or ill) look straight to the present day" (351). This is one of the major ideas expressed by Brown in this book.

The next chapter (355-379) introduces the term of "micro-Christendom," coined by Brown in order to define the areas where Christianity was adapted in local manners, not opposed to the orthodoxy or to the universal character of the Church. "Each region was convinced that its own local variant of a common Christian culture was the 'true' one. Each believed that it mirrored, with satisfactory exactitude, the wider macrocosm of worldwide Christian belief and practice" (358-359).

The first micro-Christendom presented by Brown is Britain, or, more precisely, the kingdom of Northumbria. Here, the archbishop Wilfrid of York (634-709) introduced some practices which differed from the Irish ones (the Roman tonsure and another computation of Easter). In Spain, the local adaptation was expressed according to the position of the Visigothic kings, who tried to set up a replica of the Byzantine Empire. Brown argues that the preservation of classical knowledge through the huge work of Isidorus supported this intention. He observes here an "encyclopedic tendency", that was also followed by some Armenian and Persian Christian writers.

For Brown, Christendom was composed by several "micro-Christendoms" from Ireland to Central Asia, different in some details, but united by a common heritage. Even the Byzantine church was one of them. However, the events that occurred in the eighth-ninth centuries require a distinct discussion of the Byzantine church. The seventeenth chapter is dedicated to the iconoclast controversy (383-406). Like other historians, Brown argues that the crisis was a reaction against the "idolatry" which was seen as the cause of the defeats suffered by the empire in front of the Arabs. The Islamic doctrine has influenced the iconoclast position. The interpretation that explained iconoclasm by the need of obtaining more manpower through the conversion of the monks at the active life seems to be obsolete. The author begins the discussion presenting the evolution of the idea of icon, first an object used for private worship, and then a representation of the holy itself. The rejection of this latter idea began with the actions of Leo III in 726 after a major volcanic eruption, but it was theorized only by the council of 754. The shift between iconoclasm and iconophily was determined by the big military defeats.

Brown remarks that the final victory of the iconophiles (843) transformed the doctrine of the Orthodox Church. The conception about the icons, founded on the writings of St. John Damascene, was a new one, which has transformed the cult of the icons into an identifying element of the orthodoxy. The Church took control over the cult of the icons as a mean to educate the people.

Iconoclasm and also the way the crisis was treated by the council of 787 disturbed relations with the papacy. In the following two chapters, Brown examines the consequences of the new orientation of Rome toward the Frankish kingdom. In chapter eighteen (408-433), he relates the development of the Frankish church in the eighth century, by the missions launched beyond the frontier, in Germany and Frisia. The conversion of the Saxons was a result of the conquest carried out by Charlemagne. However, the territory was not entirely heathen. What S. Willibrord has done was, as argues Brown, to fight against the non-canonical practices encountered in the area of his mission. Christianity existed there for a long time before, as well as in the Avar area (Christians of Roman origin survived in Pannonia).

The climax of the military and religious Frankish offensive policy under Charlemagne is presented in the nineteenth chapter (434-461). One of the ideas that should be retained is that the so-called "Carolingian Renaissance" was not a revival of the ancient culture, but a restoration and a correction of it, made by the removal of the mistakes which appeared over time. Brown compares this attitude with the iconoclasm, which had a similar goal and which was too an imperial action. On the other hand, a major difference between Byzantium and the Carolingian culture was the plurality of the centers where the latter was created. The Carolingian monasteries were the centers of the neighboring regions and they were in competition with one and another. Because this plurality required a common code of communication, the emperor was preoccupied with defending the correctness of the Latin language. "Latin was to the Carolingian clergy what icons were to Byzantines": the mistakes in the languages signified errors in the faith (rusticitas) (449). In the same conditions the new minuscule writing style appeared, in order to facilitate education. In the pastoral field, the same correction of the errors of the common people can be seen in the activity of St. Agobard of Lyon.

The final chapter is dedicated to the Northern Churches (462-488). There are presented the ways the Christian faith spread in the lands of the Vikings, from Denmark to Iceland. The author remarks that the northern societies preserved a strong attachment to the pagan past (the old gods survived as culture heroes in the royal genealogies), a past that was written down only later, by the Christian writers. What is interesting is that the decision to convert to Christianity was sometimes made by the shamans, who included Christ in the series of the worshipped gods.

The chapter ends with some considerations that can be taken as the conclusion of the book. Brown sees Christianization as a process of moving a religious belief from center to periphery. The pre-Christian cults were expelled to the periphery when Christianity won. The central position acquired by Christianity left alive on the margins the pagan and magic reminiscences. This process continued several older religious changes that affected Europe since prehistory, because "much of this history seems to have consisted in pushing to the margins beliefs, practices, and even social groups, to make room for new, differently organized and more prestigious conglomerations of power, culture and religious expertise" (485).

In fact, the subject of this book is how Christianity came to the center all over Western Europe. Brown has emphasized the diversity of the ways of conversion and of religious development within the West. This view distinguishes his book from another reference work, written by Judith Herrin (The Formation of Christendom), which focused on the increasing differences between the Latin West as a whole and Byzantium ("the divergent paths").


[[1]] V. H. Baumann, Vestigii paleocrestine descoperite on mediul rural autohton de pe valea TeliK^[ei, judeK^[ul Tulcea, in Studia historica et theologica. Omagiu profesorului Emilian Popescu (ed. C. C. Petolescu, T. Teoteoi. A. Gabor), Iasi, 2003, 169-183.

[[2]] J. Durliat, La peste du VIe siecle. Pour un nouvel examen des sources byzantines, in Hommes et richesses dans l'Empire Byzantin (IVe-VIIe siecles), I, Paris, 1989, 107-119; C. Morrisson, J. P. Sodini, The Sixth-Century Economy, in A. E. Laiou (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium from the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, Dumbarton Oaks, 2002, I, 194-195.

[[3]] G. Dagron, Entre village et cite: la bourgade rurale des IVe-VIIe siecles en Orient, "Koinonia", Napoli, 3, 1979, 29-52 (= Idem, La romanite chretienne en Orient. Heritages et mutations, Variorum, London, 1984, VII).